School Choice & Charters

Prominent Charter School Networks Seeking Fresh Territory

By Sean Cavanagh — July 17, 2012 11 min read
George Berube prepares to install cabinets in the chemistry lab of BASIS DC in Washington. The new charter school will open August 27 for 468 students in grades 5 through 8, and steadily expand until it serves students through grade 12.
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A handful of prominent charter school networks that have won praise for their academic performance and unorthodox models are expanding to new parts of the country, in some cases after receiving recruiting pitches from state and local officials determined to bring proven operators into their communities.

Until now, organizations such as Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education, both with headquarters in California, and BASIS Schools Inc. of Arizona, which have been held up as worthy of emulation, have focused their work within their states’ boundaries.

But in recent months, those nonprofit organizations and others have announced plans for incremental growth, the success of which will determine whether they venture into other cities and states in the years to follow.

The slow growth of those charter school operators underscores a sorting process in the charter school community. Some states and cities have resolved to be selective in choosing the organizations they allow to take over struggling schools or start new ones. Leaders of a number of highly regarded charter organizations, meanwhile, say they will only move to new locations that offer certain attributes—such as favorable financial conditions or a strong degree of independence.

“Historically, people who have tried to expand too quickly have failed,” said John Danner, the chief executive officer of Rocketship Education, a California charter organization that plans to open its first out-of-state school, in Milwaukee, in fall 2013. “The rate of expansion for most of us will be relatively cautious. We have to be pretty conservative about what we take on and make sure that we do it well.”

Growth, Caution

The cautious migration of groups like Rocketship Education to new cities and states is occurring as the overall charter school sector continues to grow. The nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota 20 years ago. In the past decade, the number of charter schools has steadily climbed from about 2,300 to an estimated 5,600 today, serving approximately 2 million students.

Aspire Public Schools is one of the charter-management organizations authorized by Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run system designed to turn around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. BASIS Schools will open its first school outside the state this fall, in the District of Columbia. Another Arizona charter school, Carpe Diem, has committed to opening at least one school in Indiana, beginning this fall.

All of those other charter operators have won varying degrees of attention or acclaim for either their academic performance or organizational models.

In addition to its schools scoring well on state tests, Rocketship Education has also drawn interest from policymakers for its spending practices. Rocketship students spend a portion of the day in “learning labs,” where students receive tailored instruction via computer. Those sessions are led by noncertified staff, an arrangement that Rocketship officials say allows them to save on overall personnel costs—an estimated $500,000 annually per school, compared with the costs of a traditional school—and channel that spending into other areas, including academic support for students and higher teacher salaries.

A number of BASIS’ Arizona schools, meanwhile, have been named as some of the nation’s best in national reports, and its academic approach was held up as a model for other schools to emulate in a 2009 documentary film.

Johnny Hansen puts together lockers for the BASIS DC school in Washington.

Aspire, which currently serves 12,000 mostly impoverished students in 34 schools across California, was one of a handful of high-performing charter-management companies identified in a report this year by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an independent research group at the University of Washington, and Mathematica Policy Research Inc., a research group in Princeton, N.J. The report linked those charter organizations’ success to effective coaching of teachers and other strategies.

Leaders of Tennessee’s Achievement district invited Aspire and other charter operators that state officials deemed to be of high quality, including Rocketship Education, to apply to open schools, said Margo Roen, the achievement district’s new schools director. The superintendent of the district, Chris Barbic, is the founder and former chief executive officer of yes Prep Public Schools, a Houston-based charter network, and he and other district officials were familiar with Aspire’s and Rocketship’s work, she noted.

The achievement district is an effort supported through the state’s $500 million award in the federal Race to the Top competition. Nineteen eligible charter organizations, from in and out of state, have applied to open schools in the district so far, and seven have been approved. (Rocketship Education was also given state approval, but the organization has not yet decided on whether to expand to Tennessee, or to New Orleans and Indianapolis, where it has also been approved to operate, Mr. Danner said.)

Achievement school officials believed they had a strong case to make to charter organizations like Aspire, Ms. Roen said. The district will give charter operators both support and relative autonomy in their work serving disadvantaged, academically struggling populations, she said. And state legislators have recently approved new laws that officials believe will appeal to charter schools, such as lifting the statewide caps on them, giving them room to expand, she said.

“There is a need here,” Ms. Roen said, and “the conditions in Tennessee are ripe for educational change.”

States, Cities Compete

Aspire was recruited by half a dozen states, either formally or informally, said James Willcox, the organization’s chief executive officer. It picked Tennessee for several reasons. The ability to work directly with the achievement school district, a state entity, was an appealing alternative to being overseen by local school districts, which might be wary of a charter operator competing with traditional public schools for funding and students, he said. Another attraction: Tennessee provides the achievement school district charters with the same level of funding as it does to traditional public schools, and it will get access to school buildings at no charge—conditions that do not exist in California and many other states, Mr. Willcox added.

Tennessee is not the only state to have recently approved policies meant to help charters. Since the beginning of 2011, 23 states have passed new laws either to allow charters, ease caps on them, improve funding or access to facilities for them, or regulate them, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group in Washington.

“The environment in other states for charters is becoming very welcoming,” Mr. Willcox said, and those changes put “Tennessee on our list, and other states on other people’s lists.”

Like Aspire, Rocketship Education is weighing opportunities for expansion carefully. The California charter operator has been courted by more than 30 cities, and some states, about opening charters, said Mr. Danner. Rocketship is wary of trying to work in multiple jurisdictions with very different charter policies, he said.

“The way we get leverage is by doing the same thing over and over again,” Mr. Danner said, which would be impossible if the group faced “a crazy quilt of regulations.”

Rocketship has set a goal of raising $3.5 million in any new area it targets for expansion, to cover start-up costs, and it has met that goal in Milwaukee, Mr. Danner said. The organization was impressed with the interest shown in its work by Milwaukee school, business, and civic leaders, he said. The charter school organization’s suitors included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who joined a group of city officials who traveled to California to meet with Rocketship officials.

“We decided this was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss,” said Abby Andrietsch, the executive director of Schools That Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit that worked on the recruitment effort. The idea was to focus on “one organization that was high quality, rather than focus on five or six of them at once.”

Learning Experience

Many charter operators today, particularly nonprofits, have learned from the experiences of for-profit providers who, over the past 10 to 15 years, tried to expand quickly, with mixed success, said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Washington. The new providers’ caution, he said, is evident in the fact that many of them are starting by serving only a handful of grades, then gradually “grow the culture of the school over time” by adding more grades.

Another charter operator making its first foray across state lines is Carpe Diem, a charter school based in Yuma, Ariz., that combines computer-based and in-person instruction. Carpe Diem is opening a school in Indianapolis this fall and hopes to launch a total of six schools in Indiana over the next four years, said Rick Ogston, the school’s founder and chief executive officer.

Over the past few years, Indiana has sought to make the environment more hospitable to charters by approving laws to create a statewide authorizer of those schools, require districts to lease or sell vacant schools buildings to charters for $1, and lift the state’s cap on virtual charters. Indiana state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett visited Carpe Diem in Arizona last year, was impressed, and encouraged the group to apply to open a school in the Hoosier State, said Alex Damron, a spokesman for the schools chief. (Carpe Diem’s application was approved by the state’s charter board, and Mr. Bennett is not a member, the spokesman added.)

Each new Carpe Diem school typically requires about $1 million in startup funds, Mr. Ogston said. He would like to see Carpe Diem expand to five more states over the next five years, but he wants to see what comes of its foray into Indiana first.

“We have a number of places asking us,” said Mr. Ogston, who declined to name those suitors, but also said “everything depends on the first launch.”

Need for Monitoring

Indiana officials should closely monitor the growth of charters, and virtual charters, to ensure quality, particularly since traditional public schools lose funding when students go with online options, said Mark Shoup, a spokesman for the Indiana State Teachers Association. Many charter operators claim they can operate for less money than traditional public schools, but they need to show they can do it while providing adequate services, he argued.

“There are so many players coming into the state,” Mr. Shoup said. The question, he said, is whether “this is truly blended learning or blended learning purely for the sake of reducing the number of teachers in the classroom.”

Heading East

Another Arizona operator heading east is basis Schools, which will open its first out-of-state school in the District of Columbia this fall. Known for its broad, demanding curriculum, BASIS was highlighted three years ago in the documentary film, “Two Million Minutes: A 21st Century Solution,” which warned that the United States’ educational standing has slipped and extolled the Arizona school’s academic model.

BASIS will initially serve students in grades 5-8 and then seek to expand. School officials have heard criticism from skeptics who question whether it will serve a racially and economically diverse population in the historically low-performing city. But BASIS officials respond that they aggressively promoted the school to families of potential students in neighborhoods across the district and conducted tutoring for incoming students to steel them for the academic demands to come.

In gaining approval in the District of Columbia, BASIS is in relatively select company. Over the past three years, the District’s charter school board approved just 12 of 42 applications to open charters. Seven of the approved operators were based in the District, and five were from outside the city.

The board recruits charter schools it deems to be high quality at conferences, and through phone calls and in-person visits, said Scott Pearson, the board’s executive director. Mr. Pearson, a former deputy in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement who began work in the District in January, said one source he considers for identifying high-quality operators is the list of winners in the federal charter school grant-replication program. The program, which seeks to help charter operators with proven records expand, is administered by the office where Mr. Pearson used to work.


The District’s charter board is also weighing new guidelines that would streamline the process for approving new charter operators that have proven records of success in other cities, another step that would appeal to top-quality providers, Mr. Pearson said.

BASIS considered expanding to at least three states before choosing the nation’s capital, said Michael Block, the school’s co-founder. Two advantages the District has over other possible locations: It does not require that charters use certified teachers, as long as educators meet other standards, and it allows them significant leeway in designing curricula—and BASIS schools need that flexibility to operate, Mr. Block said. The District also offers BASIS something else, he added: visibility.

“It’s a place where we can draw attention to the BASIS model,” Mr. Block said. “People ask me why D.C., and I’ve said, somewhat flippantly, ‘Because it is D.C.’”

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Prominent Charter School Networks Seeking Fresh Territory


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